Professor Joe Dongell delivered this groundbreaking address helping us refocus on the true core of John Wesley. In this fourth and final installment, he gives his final reflections and application of Wesley’s radical and often overlooked emphasis on the primacy of love for understanding and practicing the Christian faith.
Much of the logic of the dynamic of love can be discerned in II Cor. 1:3-4, a passage that always sounds on first reading as dizzingly circular, and unnecessarily redundant. And when we read it now, I’m sure it will sound completely unrelated to love: [Listen for the word “comfort”] “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
You can see the two levels of comfort at work: God comforts Paul, and Paul in turn comforts others. Now here is the key: Paul does not comfort others simply by choosing to comfort them, as if to create comfort out of thin air to give to others. No, he first must receive that comfort from God in a way that directly addresses him, in a way that meets his own need for comfort. Then he is able somehow to forward this comfort he has received to others as something already received and fully digested in his own soul. It’s as if comfort is a commodity that has its source ultimately in God.
Now there is an unusually close connection between comfort and love (both in the mind of the Apostle Paul and Wesley as well) in a way I cannot lay out here. And I have become convinced that the dynamic of comfort (as we see it operating here in II Cor.) is the same as the dynamic by which love operates. I think we can substitute “love” for “comfort” without doing violence to the underlying idea: “Blessed be the God of all love, who has loved us. . . so that we may be able to love others. . . with the love with which we ourselves are loved by God.” With this we have reached the fundamental bedrock for understanding how love flows from its source (God) into us (in a way that meets our needs) and then through us to others.
Now I usually don’t advocate trying to do our theology via bumper stickers. Key nuances cannot be communicated well in any three or four-word blast aimed at other drivers. But I was struck, while strolling through the IGA parking lot in Wilmore recently, by a sticker on the right rear bumper of a Volvo: “Love God, Love Others.” I began reflecting on it. Surely the driver, appealing to the Words of Jesus, believes he/she has said it all. How could we summarize religion (even the Christian religion) more simply than this?
But strolling on in a reflective mode, I concluded that the bumper sticker gets only half the message right. It identifies the output called for by Jesus, (love to God and others), but does not address the issue of the input necessary to fund this output! As it stands, the bumper sticker has reduce the gospel to moralism, leaving us with the impression that the gospel addresses us primarily as imperative: “love, act, sacrifice, do!” And if this is our message, we will exhaust ourselves and our congregations; we will continually demand action, and output, and production, rarely attending to the prior issue of infusion.
So by the larger logic of the gospel, profusion (output) can only be funded by infusion (input). “Love out” can only be funded by “love in.” Enlightened good will and steely self-discipline cannot create and sustain a profusion of love to neighbor (to enemy, to estranged family, to political rivals, to ideological opponents, to (my) abusers, and the like). Sartre was not wrong in declaring (essentially) that every “other” is potentially my executioner. Only by reducing “love” to “niceness,” and/or insisting that “others” are basically “good” can we generate “love” (in this reduced sense) from our own (human) resources.
So I’m suggesting (tongue in cheek!) a bumper sticker campaign of our own, not one of ripping off stickers like the one I saw on the Volvo in the IGA parking lot, but one of adding another sticker to the left bumper: “First, Infusion of God’s Love,” and adding a “then” in the center of the bumper. Then we would be setting the whole gospel into view: “First, Infusion of God’s Love” . . . “Then”. . . “Love God, Love Others.” Only the infusion (of love) can underwrite the Profusion (of love) in holiness and in mission.
This, I am now convinced, is the deepest insight that the Wesley brothers mined from the Bible, an insight that is not only biblically grounded but philosophically and psychologically profound as well. Wesley, as I have now read him, claims that this is the very heart of religion (in general), and the very soul of Christianity (in particular). “We love him because he first loved us.” (I John 3:19)
One of the universally recognized engines of the 18th century Wesleyan revival in England was Charles Wesley, whose ready pen put into verse the message of the two brothers. By some accounts, Charles’ finest text was his treatment of the story of “Wrestling Jacob” as narrated in Genesis 32. It would be easy to be attracted to Charles’ poetic skill alone, or to focus on the allegorical technique by which he upgrades the OT text to serve his larger purposes. But what must not be overlooked (at any cost) is the actual payload Charles labors to deliver throughout: that the supreme encounter with God consists of seeking (and coming to know) God’s fundamental identity: God’s “name.” The wrestler discovers as the fruit of his persistent struggle is that God’s name/nature is “love.” And so I leave you now with the text of that great hymn which captures so well the supremacy of love:
Come, O Thou Traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold but cannot see;
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.
I need not tell Thee who I am,
My sin and misery declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name,
Look on Thy hands, and read it there;
But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou?
Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.
In vain Thou strugglest to get free;
I never will unloose my hold;
Art Thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of Thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.
Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy name be Love.
‘Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me,
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee:
Pure, universal Love Thou art;
To me, to all Thy mercies move;
Thy nature and Thy name is Love.
Lame as I am, I take the prey;
Hell, earth and sin, with ease o’ercome.
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
And, as a bounding hart, I run,
Through all eternity to prove
Thy nature and Thy name is Love.
Dr. Joseph Dongell is professor of biblical studies and director of Greek studies at Asbury Theological Seminary where he has served for over 25 years. He is an ordained minister in The Wesleyan Church.